We were looking forward to our flight across the Himalaya, from Delhi to Leh in Ladakh. The flight always leaves early in the morning because the weather can get thundery and violent at this time of year, the end of the monsoon. Nell was keen to see the snowfields and glaciers which signified the end of her humid heat treatment in Delhi. She had never flown across high mountain ranges before and peered keenly out of the window at any patch of snow she could spot. She thought they were awesome but I must admit I was not hugely impressed having flown across the Alps in winter, when the whole landscape was blindingly white, the faceted peaks sculpted as though from giant blocks of ice, reflecting and silhouetted against a deep blue sky as the aeroplane I was on banked and descended towards Geneva.
To the left, or western side of the aeroplane we were on, we could just see the Karakoram Range, several hundred kilometres away in Pakistan, as they towered above the rest. The mountains nearer to us were not as spectacular, although they were between five and six thousand metres tall which is normally more than high enough for plenty of permanent snow, but not in this region.
I remembered that this is a high altitude desert and precipitation is low. The monsoon is blocked by the main and highest range, the Himalaya proper, which we crossed in only ten minutes, did have some snowfields but were a little lower just here. After that there were huge areas of bare brown slopes instead, devoid of vegetation. Only the summits and shadowy valleys radiating from them had snow with small, dusty grey glaciers crumbling down the steep slopes.
The landing was fun, circling across the upper Indus Valley with rugged tributaries carving their way through kilometre high piles of rock. This is erosion on the grandest scale imaginable, millions of tons of the Earth’s crust being carried down to the ocean. Tiny patches of irrigated greenery marked the presence of Humans on rare, gentler slopes and as we dropped between the peaks became more defined as villages with fields and trees. It was only now that we realised the scale of the landscape. As we levelled out more than two kilometres below the summits; whole towns and villages were dwarfed by the mountains towering above them; Man making just an insignificant scratch on the Earth.
Long after Man has disappeared and their scratchings healed, these mountains will still stand tall [in fact growing higher due to tectonic lifting] and the rivers will still be grinding away; that is, if there are any glaciers and rivers left after Climate Change.
Whoa! We felt the weird sensation as we walked from the little shuttle bus into the terminal. It was hard to catch our breath and we felt quite faint. Slow down, there is less oxygen up here at 3500 metres! Admittedly we were both still weak after several days of “die-a-horror-‘ere”. In fact, Nell was beginning to flake out altogether, rushing to the toilet and afterwards sitting quietly for a while as the terminal building emptied of passengers.
I held it together as we found a taxi [run by a co-operative, so the prices were regulated] and tried to find the guesthouse we had decided on. We were misdirected three times, as the taxi driver had not heard of it, and ended up in such narrow streets that the taxi could only reverse out. Nell was looking grey as a glacier and would not last much longer. We got out, staggered painfully slowly up a narrow alley to find the place, until Nell collapsed on the steps of a guesthouse. They had no rooms available and my heart sank; not having booked and imagining that the whole of Leh was packed out. I tried another, leaving Nell behind on the steps. They had a room, and it was really nice compared to the ones we were used to in Delhi. The western style [does not mean with saddle] toilet actually flushed.
If it had taken me a long time to get up the stairs, it took Nell twice as long, taking a rest every twenty paces on the flat, or every six steps up. Poor Nell; she looked at me desperately [as if I could do anything about her condition], but was grateful that I had been so quick to find a room. I soon found out why she was looking so desperate, when she immediately disappeared into the bathroom. [No need to describe the ‘orific noises that echoed through the guesthouse.]
We really had found a great room at the Indus guesthouse, with a view of the palace, fort and monastery on the mountain sized rock that overlooks Leh and is visible from many kilometres away. It was also a tranquil spot with only a narrow pedestrian alley separating it from poplar trees and vegetable gardens. Nell was asleep and exhausted as I walked slowly around the block to get my bearings. It was so different to Delhi, thank goodness. There were no touts, the streets were relatively clean and the people all looked as though they at least had enough to eat and a home to eat in.
Leh is one of those “Traveller friendly” towns. A place where all the usual facilities are available. Accommodation ranged from luxury hotels to cheap and scruffy backpacker hostels. There was a wide choice of restaurants with huge menus featuring tandoori pizzas or dal and chapattis; banana pancakes or chow mein. In fact the twenty page menus seem to have been copied from one another, trying to cater for tourists from as many different countries as possible. Italian, Greek, Middle Eastern, German, French, Chinese, Indonesian, Indian and yes, even Tibetan cuisines were represented. Oh, and “International” whatever that may be. This was the first time we came across Israeli food, for the benefit of the large numbers of young Israelis who can be found all over India these days.
There are internet cafes, German bakeries, coffee houses and cool places to hang out and strum a guitar. Many businesses cashing in on the tourist trade; stallholders, markets, little garage sized shops and “adventure” tour agents through whom you could book four wheel drive or motorcycle tours; treks, rafting or bicycle descents. Only a few of these businesses seemed to be owned by locals, their owners commuting seasonally from other parts of India or the big cities like Delhi. [I have only my personal encounters to rely on for this statement, but most of them were closing at the beginning of September already].
The locals were occupied in getting on with the normal daily commerce that only incidentally included the tourists. Tailors, barbers, bakeries, religious artefact makers, tinsmiths, hardware stores and so on. Even the town itself was separated into the touristy bit on the green fringes, and the authentic bit in the alleys of Old Leh. Mostly the “traveller” would venture into the authentic, noisier, dirtier and more confronting part of town to have the “experience”, take artistic photographs, or buy some Immodium pills before scuttling back to their smug and cosy cafe to hang out with their cool countrymen. This planet is not lonely anymore.
Enough comforts of the western world are available to enable even the most naive, young and sheltered to retreat into. But that is not necessarily a bad thing, since at least the relaxed atmosphere of the peaceful Buddhist society that exists here allows us westerners to glimpse the hard side of life in this place; if we are sensitive enough. A place such as Leh can serve as a tame introduction for travellers to begin to understand how the largest sector of Humanity; those who live in developing countries, have to struggle for the very basics of life. Or how women are treated in certain societies; or how few children ever make it to higher education and are taken out of school early to work for their parents. And so on.
If the Tourist or Traveller is sensitive enough to see, and does not believe that Travellerfriendlyland is Ladakh.
Ladhakis have, over the centuries, developed a society which, of necessity, was largely self- sufficient. Himalayan valleys were isolated from one another by high passes and severe cold, ice and snow in the winter. They grew crops of barley on tiny terraces, herded a few goats, hardy sheep and Yaks to provide them with enough food for their family and perhaps have a little left over to take to market in exchange for something extra to enhance their hard lives.
Leh was the market hub of Ladakhi society but in the last fifty years has become accessible by road and more recently air. The rest of the world has arrived and now the challenge is how to retain the peaceful and ecologically sound way of life developed through the centuries, nurtured by Buddhist principles, and at the same time bring the benefits of modern medicine, education and human rights to the local people. In my opinion and with some important reservations, it seems to have been achieved fairly well in Leh. We saw and met contented [no, more than that], happy people who greeted us always with a beaming smile and a cheery “jule”. There were nice looking schools and pupils with immaculate uniforms. Many of the older houses were rustically run down but reasonably comfortable on the inside. There was nobody sleeping on the street at night; nor did there seem to be much crime.
At the same time life is still hard. The locals continue to harvest their crops by hand and grow their own vegetables. They still keep a few goats or Dzos [cross between yaks and cows, a modern hybrid for improved yields]. They still earn a pittance from selling vegetables, making tin pots or sewing clothes. They wash their clothes in the streams and fetch water from public wells. Nevertheless tourism does seem to have brought some modest benefits, a way of earning a little more; some employment opportunities, improved infrastructure and Governmental support.
While we were in Leh, the annual Ladakh Festival was on. The Governor of Ladakh in his opening speech extolled the virtues of “Ecotourism” and was boasting of the achievements to date. He saw a future of great expansion, with new flights into Leh and more accommodation and infrastructure planned. I heard his speech, which was in English, whilst sitting in the traditional kitchen of a struggling farmer’s homestay in a dry, rugged valley and could not help wondering what the Politician meant by Ecotourism and how Leh would be in a few years time. Leh was a world away from this simple farm.
Already there seemed to be far too many guesthouses for the amount of tourists and dozens more of them were being built all over. [Although admittedly in a restrained, traditional style...mostly]. Who in India, is going to place limits on expansion, and then regulate the process? Getting a room was always easy, the main issue being whether there was a better view or more value for money, at one or another. Eco and Tourism are two concepts difficult to combine in one word.
But we were Travellers too, or Tourists, or something in between [Travourists, Tourellers?]. Enjoying a respite from the stressy, messy streets of poor Old Delhi. To recover a bit from those nasty little gut bugs breeding inside us. We wandered about the green lanes and narrow alleys, climbed very slowly up to the Gompa and fort on top of the huge rock; visited the restoration work at the old palace of the King of Ladakh and generally explored and soaked up the pleasant atmosphere of the place.
The local people were very cheerful but kept to themselves. Most of them had little English so we spoke to other Tourellers and sipped Lassi while we listened to beautiful young people strumming their guitars.
One afternoon we came across a Muslim demonstration. A group of angry young men were raising their fists, chanting slogans and waving placards with pictures of Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader of Iran.
“One who gets up in the morning and is not concerned about the affairs of other Muslims is not a Muslim,”read one placard; “Free Palestine, end Zionists,”another. They were followed by a whole schoolful of schoolgirls wearing their Hijabs and looking somewhat bored but obediently joining in with the chanting. The demonstration was carefully orchestrated to create as much disruption as possible in town, weaving its way slowly through the streets and blocking traffic.
It was the last thing we expected in this Buddhist stronghold and we wondered why Muslims would want to demonstrate here. Surely they were not appealing to the Buddhists who stood and watched the march passively and soon carried on with their own business. It was us, the tourist, they had in mind, as well as trying to reach the media. No doubt their main target was the large number of Israelis who were in town.
But then, the Muslim minority were very loud here. Their Muezzins had the volume cranked right up when they called for prayer. For a couple of nights, the sounds of their congregations were broadcast loudly until midnight, keeping everyone awake.
On another day Leh was closed for some hours in remembrance of a bus accident on the notorious Manali road two weeks previously, when more than a dozen local people were killed. Although we had planned to “do” the Manali road initially, we now decided not to go. We had by then, both suffered the effects of altitude sickness on the highest mountain passes and going along this road would have meant long periods at the same kind of altitude. We heard some agonising tales from other travellers, of when their jeeps were delayed for days due to landslides or bad weather. We would, after all, head for the Kashmir Valley instead.
We played for a day, joining the ranks of the “Adventure” traveller, by doing a little rafting on the Zanskar River. The amazingly rugged scenery was perhaps more memorable than the rafting itself, although the adrenaline fix gave us a high for a while. The silt laden water was like liquid rock flowing between solid rocks of exactly the same colour.
At the first and wildest rapid, the other raft capsized. Perhaps due to carelessness of the leader rather than the grade of difficulty of the descent. There was an irresponsible flirting with danger in the attitude of that particular leader. He wanted to make it more exciting by heading for the highest waves, whereas our leader skirted the worst of the turbulence. Everyone was shocked but hauled out of the water quickly. A young Indian woman lost her sunglasses and expensive hairdo. When everyone was safely back in the raft, a more experienced leader took over, although the irresponsible novice did not seem to have learned a lesson and continued annoying the cold paddlers by splashing water over them, long after it had ceased to be funny.
Already, at this early stage of our trip I knew that Leh was not really what I wanted to experience in India, enjoyable though it was at the time. I had visited “Traveller friendly” towns like this before in various Not So Lonely Planet Anymore routes throughout the world; Central America, the Caribbean, China. In the back of my mind I held images of wandering with a small pack through the heat and dust of central India, paddy fields and mud villages where no tourists ever came. Walking under a large hat, riding on donkey carts or local buses, moving very slowly, speaking to the local people and perhaps even staying with them to help make their lives a little easier.
A rather romantic vision, I know, and perhaps that India no longer exists but I would have liked to have given it a try and hopefully still will. I wanted to travel way out of my comfort zone.
I also realised well before this trip that I would not be able to impose the heat, physical hardship and attitude towards women on Nell. My particular trip would have to be on my own, and would have to wait.
But, having spoken of all that and catching our breath, both figuratively and physically, we decided to go on an easy trek where we would be living in peoples’ homes and walking from village to village in the dust and the heat...